Southeast Alaska Stands Up For The Tongass

Alaska Wilderness League had a busy week recently in Washington, D.C., defending the Tongass National Forest from the Trump administration’s efforts to remove Roadless Rule protections.

In September of last year, because of a request from the State of Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service began evaluating a state-specific Roadless Rule. Guided by conversations between Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy and President Trump, the Forest Service released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in November of this year outlining its preferred course of action that would entirely exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.

The public comment period on the Alaska roadless DEIS ended on December 17, and during the course of 60 days, more than 400,000 people and dozens of local tribal, government, business and national recreation groups flooded the U.S. Forest Service with comments opposing its plan to undo safeguards that prevent clearcutting and road building in the Tongass.

Removing roadless protections in the Tongass would strip protections from more than nine million acres of national forest, opening it for the timber industry to begin clear-cut logging. The pristine temperate rainforest in the Tongass is home to critical salmon habitat that provides a foundation for the local fishing economy and sustenance for abundant wildlife including America’s highest concentration of brown bears and bald eagles.

Throughout the week the League worked with partners from a variety of backgrounds to fight back to keep roadless protections for the Tongass. We worked closely with two Alaska regional groups — Sitka Conservation Society and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council — along with other national and state-based partners to ensure the right voices were elevated to the right decisionmakers. Through these partnerships, individuals came all the way from Southeast Alaska to the nation’s capital to join us, including tribal leaders, grassroots activists and a commercial salmon fisherman.

Our staff took our visitors to lobby on Capitol Hill in support of bicameral legislation (H.R. 2491/S. 1311 – Roadless Area Conservation Act) that would codify the Roadless Rule, and in doing so, protect the Tongass. These meetings were an important way to share stories of the real value that Tongass roadless areas have from the perspective of the local communities that rely upon them. We also took part in four events during the week: a briefing for Hill staff, an oversight hearing held by the House Natural Resources Committee, a reception on Capitol Hill for members if Congress and their staff, and the D.C. public hearing for the Tongass National Forest Roadless Rule.

The Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) Indigenous Women’s Tongass delegation. (Alaska Wilderness League)

The briefing on Capitol Hill was an opportunity to collaborate with taxpayer groups and educate congressional staff on the massive subsidies that the timber industry in Southeast Alaska has received to continue destructive clear-cut logging of old growth forest in the Tongass. This event was attended by both Republican and Democratic staff, which is a testament to the bipartisan support that exists for ending the longtime subsidies which keep the timber industry in Southeast Alaska afloat.

Witnesses then testified the next day at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing about the importance of the Roadless Rule, especially for tribal communities whose subsistence lifestyle relies upon a healthy and intact forest ecosystem. Witnesses supporting the Roadless Rule included Autumn Hanna, Vice President of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Joel Dáxhajóon Jackson, Council President of the Organized Village of Kake, and Austin Williams, Alaska Director of Law and Policy at Trout Unlimited. Eight members of Congress also spoke in favor of preserving roadless protections, which is a fantastic number to see show up and support the Tongass.

The evening of the subcommittee hearing, a reception was held on Capitol Hill — this was a great opportunity for our partners and fly-in guests to mingle with congressional staff and the five members of Congress who attended. Several of these members spoke publicly during the event on the importance of a protected Tongass to both Southeast Alaska and the country in general.

The Tongass is home to iconic wildlife including high concentrations of bald eagles and brown bears, as well the regionally unique Alexander Archipelago wolf. (Kim Elston)

Finally, the Forest Service held its only public hearing on the Alaska state-specific Roadless Rule outside of Alaska, which happened to be in Washington, D.C. A great crowd turned out to comment on the Forest Service presentation, and moving testimonials were given by many that had made the journey from Southeast Alaska including Alaska Native tribal leaders Marina Anderson, Vice President of the Organized Village of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island, and Joel Dáxhajóon Jackson, Council President of the Organized Village of Kake. In total, every public comment made during the evening was made in favor of keeping Roadless Rule protections in place.

With the Tongass still facing the threat of losing roadless protections, Alaska Wilderness League is continuing our hard work to defend this irreplaceable forest. Our team is lobbying to gain support for the Roadless Area Conservation Act in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. If passed, this legislation would ensure permanent protections for the millions of acres of roadless area in the Tongass that provide for the wildlife and local communities in Southeast Alaska.

Send a message to your members of Congress today to protect the Tongass and support the Roadless Area Conservation Act!